Saudi Arabia and the Arab world in 2020

Sarah Hammond, business correspondent

Saudi Arabia has ruled the way the rest of the world looks at the Middle East since it acquired the mantle of the region’s centre of power a little more than 20 years ago.

That vision, although rough-hewn, was rooted in the American values that had always permeated the Saudi psyche. King Faisal and King Khalid were guided by American idealism, and the country had for many years been effectively in a partnership with Washington.

However, the events of the past three weeks are beginning to suggest that the kingdom may be looking to switch direction, and come to view its relationship with the West not as a strategic and economic partnership but a strategic and emotional one.

The Saudi crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, is travelling to Turkey this week with an official delegation that includes representatives from the US, China, Europe and the Gulf.

But while all the western nations making the trip have an obvious stake in the stability of the kingdom, Turkey has its own interests at stake.

Also close to Saudi Arabia is Iran, which is also represented in Ankara. A collision course has already been drawn with Saudi Arabia, and the relationship between Turkey and Iran has been developing into an increasingly pointed one.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is eager to position his country as the new powerbroker in the region. In his own way, Mohammed bin Salman is seeking to follow in the footsteps of King Faisal, who was a regional rival of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in the 1980s and acted as an intermediary between the Islamic republic and some European states.

However, even if Turkey is now seen by Saudi Arabia as an influential partner, the relationship may not mean the same for China. Beijing already feels that Saudi Arabia is an overly dependent economy that is missing out on a new, multibillion-dollar development project, the Gulf Star.

US influence has also receded in the kingdom. After all, the chaos which has unfolded in the Arab world this year has all but erased that notion of Saudi global leadership. The country still plans to host the World Economic Forum in 2021, but the extra world meetings that would usually be hosted there will either be cancelled or moved.

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